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Theatre in Review: Rose (Nora's Playhouse/Theatre Row)

Kathleen Chalfant. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Not very long into Laurence Leamer's new solo play about Rose Kennedy, the lady admits that, just recently -- it is July 1969 -- she has taken up reading Greek tragedies. She knows that she should favor Scripture -- later, she will tell us, while fingering a set of rosary beads, "My faith is a discipline from which I never wander" -- but these are dark days for her troubled family, and she finds she can't attend morning Mass without being accosted by reporters. Instead, she is drawn to Euripides, finding herself identifying with The Trojan Women's Hecuba. The parallels are almost too obvious: Hecuba is left standing, along with the other women of Troy, following the sack of their city and the murder of their men. Let's just say that Rose must have considered Hecuba to be something of a soul sister.

Indeed, a certain classical diction creeps into Rose's lines when she speaks about "the dark and enveloping waters at Chappaquiddick." The play takes place a week after Ted Kennedy, Rose's sole surviving son, has driven off a Massachusetts bridge, killing the young lady in the passenger seat and plunging into the icy waters of a scandal that threatens to destroy his career. Rose, a practiced veteran of such disasters, has flow into action: She has shown up at the funeral of Mary Jo Kopechne, the young victim, and offered comfort to the grieving parents. She has made sure that Ted appeared there as well, with his wife, Joan. Rose has rallied other members of the clan, including her daughter-in-law Jackie, who has recently scandalized the nation by abandoning her identity as the Widow Kennedy to marry the plutocratic shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. As you can imagine, this is not the easiest moment to be the matriarch of America's de facto royal family.

We are at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. Ted is out sailing, taking time to consider his options, one of which involves dropping out of politics and running off with his current lover. (Seeking advice, he has already knelt at the bed of his father, Joe, stilled and made mute by a stroke; the old man merely closed his eyes in despair.) Rose waits in her sitting room, certain that Ted will return, ready to do the right thing. She has already outlined what the right thing is, urging him to return to politics with his head held high. It is a decisive moment in the family's history: Ted represents the last hope for a Kennedy return to the White House. Surely he will not shirk his duty -- or will he?

Rose, the play, contains most of the oddities of the solo show format; we are asked to believe that Rose has received a visitor, a representative of the ladies' auxiliary of some Dublin-based Catholic society, but it beggars belief that this professional keeper of the family flame would pour out her heart -- and spill so many family secrets -- to a near-stranger. In any case, does anyone enter a room, greet a visitor, and launch into the story of her life? But there is real drama here: As Rose lets her public stance slip, Leamer does something clever, almost cruel: He makes Rose the unreliable narrator of her own life, showing how her dedication to the Kennedy myth made her a leading player in the almost unimaginable series of tragedies that have brought her, in her 80th year, to this desolate place. And, in Kathleen Chalfant, the production has an actress who is superbly skilled at probing the unspoken emotions tucked away behind Rose's iron-willed great-lady fa├žade.

Chalfant's Rose enters -- crisp, cool, and understatedly chic in a white-on-white patterned pantsuit, a nifty piece of work by costume designer Jane Greenwood -- and invites her visitor to sit down, warning, in faintly tense undertone, that the settee once used by Pope Pius XII is to be avoided at all costs. (He sat there, once, in the 1930s -- although, she admits reluctantly, he hadn't yet been elected Pontiff.) With one ear cocked for the sound of Ted's return, she speaks fondly of her marriage and family, but, very quickly, the shadows creep in. The daughter of a storied Boston politician, born and married into families of Irish-Catholic strivers, she was trained to be an obedient wife and daughter of the Church. As she and her husband, Joe, rose in the world, they adopted the manners of the Boston Brahmins who looked down on them, shunning ostentation and emotional displays. After a brief happy period, they grew quietly estranged: She focused on the children, two of whom -- Jack and Rosemary -- were sickly, and soon Joe was "often gone, returning with the smell of a different life." She briefly fled to her parents' home, where her father told her divorce was not an option. She returned to Joe; they never discussed her unexplained absence of several days.

If certain intimacies were forever curtailed, Rose and Joe became full partners in the business of raising a generation of glittering, accomplished Kennedy men and women. Their methods were strictly hands-off, at times positively frosty. "I was never a mother who blathered on about love; leave that to the nannies!" she says, gaily, later adding, "My daughters did not think I loved them as I loved their brothers" -- a statement she makes little attempt to deny. By the time she notes, "I would rather be a president's mother than a president," we have an all-too-clear idea of her child-raising methods. The fruits of parental intervention can be seen in Pat Kennedy's disastrous marriage to the actor Peter Lawford -- Joe thought it would help Jack rally the Hollywood community around his election -- as well as Ted's troubled domestic life. (Joe thought Ted, who was getting around too much, needed an innocent, virginal girl to settle down with.) And, following the advice of Boston's Cardinal Cushing, she drove away her daughter Kathleen when she fell in love with a non-Catholic British nobleman.

There was more trouble to come with Kathleen who, quickly widowed, took up with a married man and died in an easily avoidable plane crash. Then again, the line from Hamlet "When troubles come, they come not single spies/But in battalions" could have been written for Rose, as death after death follows: Joe, Jr. (the family's great white hope and the apple of his father's eye), Kathleen, John, and Bobby. Leamer persuasively suggests that the most traumatic loss of all involved Rosemary, the daughter whom today we would term learning disabled, who was subjected by her father to a botched lobotomy that Rose only learned of after the fact. Rosemary was carted off to the Midwest, to be tended to by nuns. Rose saw her daughter only one more time, when she was an unrecognizably overweight middle-aged woman; she became so distraught that Rose was forced to withdraw.

Chalfant relates these horrors -- and more -- with a remarkable equipoise that never conceals the appalling sense of loss underneath. Even when making a reference to "our good friend Joseph McCarthy," she doesn't judge the maddening contradictions of her character; she leaves that to us. Her Rose is allowed one flash of temper, when a tourist boat passes by, the guide noting that many celebrities had visited the Kennedy compound, including Gloria Swanson. This is a particularly sore point -- Swanson was the only one of Joe Kennedy's lovers who might have destroyed his marriage -- and there is fire in her eyes and menace in her voice when Rose snarls, "My three sons gave their lives for their country. Why don't they talk about that?" And she seizes with both hands a furious climactic speech in which she begins to wonder what might have been had she not always done what her father, her husband, and the Roman Catholic power structure dictated.

Chalfant is one of our most accomplished actresses, but surely the director, Caroline Reddick Lawson, had much to do with sculpting such a tactful, understated, and ultimately devastating performance. The director has also obtained fine work from her designers. Anya Klepikov's sitting room set is a fine example of restrained good taste, as is Caitlin Smith Rapoport's lighting; Klepikov and Lianne Arnold have supplied the cascade of photos from the family's history that punctuate Rose's tales. Jane Shaw's sound design blends period tunes, such as "Stardust" and (perhaps most tellingly) "A Bird in a Gilded Cage," with the omnipresent rush of Atlantic Ocean waves.

In the end, Rose is a remarkable portrait of a woman who played the hand she was dealt without ever looking back. "This thing you call personal happiness doesn't last very long," she muses, adding, "Faith, duty, and honor go on forever." It's the accomplishment of Rose that this statement is both inspiring and more than a little disturbing. -- David Barbour


(30 November 2015)

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